By LOUISA CLEAVE
Television New Zealand's decision to can award-winning arts show backch@t has prompted a warning from the Prime Minister that it will have to come up with something better to replace it.
The decision to pull the only dedicated arts and media show and replace it with a "broad-appeal" programme next year has been criticised by its host, Bill Ralston, and opposition politicians.
And until it is known what TVNZ will offer as an alternative, the arts community has expressed concern about the quality of an arts show designed for a primetime audience.
Prime Minister Helen Clark, who is also Arts Minister and a fan of the "bold and independent" issues programme, said last night that backch@t had done a very, very good job and she was sorry to see it go.
TVNZ would have to come up with a replacement arts programme which did the job better than backch@t, she said.
"It [TVNZ] says it wants an hour's programme for primetime. Just as a humble viewer, I think it [backch@t] would have done fine as an hour-long programme in primetime."
TVNZ has invited production houses, including backch@t creator the Gibson Group, to bid for a new primetime arts show.
TVOne general manager Shaun Brown said backch@t was a niche show aimed at an off-peak audience.
"In response to Government requests that TVNZ take a new direction, and in anticipation of the need to conform to the charter, TVOne has decided to commission a primetime arts programme," said Mr Brown.
Mr Ralston was critical of the decision, and did not see why the show could not screen in primetime.
"The feedback I got from TVNZ is they thought it was too Wellington arts scene ... Too close to politicians and politics. Television and also the arts has become a very political issue under this Government ... It's been naturally a political issue anyway.
"Helen Clark and Marian Hobbs' support of the programme was a bit of a kiss of death."
Gibson Group general manager Dave Gibson said backch@t agreed with TVNZ's evaluation of the show.
"It was designed for people who had an interest in arts and media, a firm interest, and my feeling was it was quite successful at that.
"I think it was highly regarded amongst the community it served. That made no difference. If a broadcaster wants a show at 9.30 and not 10.30 then obviously it's a different animal and that's their call, that's their station."
National Party broadcasting spokeswoman Katherine Rich said it was ironic that TVNZ was "dumping" backch@t in the footsteps of a draft charter which sought to educate and stimulate viewers.
Backch@t, which screened late-night on Sundays and ended its run before the Olympics, had received $1 million a year over three years in public funding from NZ On Air.
It had been named best lifestyle programme at the 1998 Television Awards and won a Qantas media award.
By LOUISA CLEAVE